Three years ago, around Christmastime, Frank Francois' boss introduced him to the chairman of the Fairfax County supervisors.
It was one of the best presents Francois ever got.
The chairman, John F. Herrity, last week successfully sponsored Francois for membership on the School Board, second only to the supervisors as the county's most influential public body.
Francois, 52, a self-described entrepreneur and political independent, replaces Robert E. Frye July 1 as the minority representative to the 10-member board. Both men are black.
The vote reflected the wish of the supervisors' new Republican majority to extend their dominance to the School Board. The April 29 party-line vote to name Francois was 5 to 4.
Frye, 48, served four terms as a Democratic appointee. Francois, who retired from the Army four years ago at the rank of colonel, is president of Potomac Marketing and Sales Inc., a fledgling black-owned company that sells goods to military commissaries.
Francois said the School Board is an outlet for his interest in community service, already demonstrated in his work for an association of retired Army officers, for the Mount Vernon Citizens Association and for the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Francois says he has no broader political ambitions at present.
"I don't think a person should be on the School Board simply to achieve political or press notoriety," he said. "If you do a good job, the rewards will come."
His appointment produced some puzzlement among some school officials, because Francois' only previous involvement with county education was in the PTA when his children attended Fairfax schools. Three of his four children graduated from Hayfield High.
Francois concedes he is a newcomer to many School Board issues. He is studying and introducing himself around. Meantime, he is deliberately vague about his views on school matters.
But he said this about county schools: "It's an excellent system. I moved to Fairfax County because of the school system. I don't say that to mean there aren't ways to imrove the system, or that things don't have to be done to maintain the system."
He lists budget problems and the growth of high technology as challenges facing the schools. So are population shifts, he said. Does that mean new school boundary changes? Dodging the political landmine, he grinned quickly and replied: "I didn't say that."
Francois said he hopes, like Frye, to represent the entire county, not only minority residents. He said of minority groups and parents: "They'll have a person on the board for those issues where they feel they'd be uncomfortable talking to someone else."
He said he intends to keep the pressure on the schools to bring up achievement of minority students. After a county report showed minority students lagged behind their white counterparts, the board voted to make that a priority this year.
Francois said the other asset he brings to the board is his "close association with Jack Herrity." That will ensure the School Board's concerns are heard by the Board of Supervisors, and that Herrity will get "good, solid information -- adequately researched and developed -- quickly," he said.
Francois also hopes to help Herrity recruit other black talent for county jobs.
Francois is not well known to black leaders, who had rallied around Frye when his renomination was threatened. But Herrity noted that School Board member Joy G. Korologos also was virtually unknown when she was appointed. He said he picked Francois because "he sounds like a problem-solver" and has good education, background and personality credentials. "I don't look for 100 years' service on the PTA," he said.
Black leaders say they hope Francois will jump in quickly to represent their concerns during a time they describe as crucial for minorities, as the School Board digs into the issue of low-achieving blacks.
"We have no question about his qualifications," said the Rev. Glenwood P. Roane, president of the Fairfax County chapter of the NAACP. "But whether or not he can grab the ball and run with it as fast as Bob Frye could have is a serious question in my mind."
Pat Parrish Blackwell, Roane's outspoken predecessor who now heads a civil rights group called PEER (Parity in Education, Economy and Residency), says Francois has no power base in the community to help him, so some school officials will "blow smoke in his eyes for days."
Francois, who considered himself a Democrat until two years ago, now lists himself as a firm independent. "There was no commitment to Mr. Herrity that I'll be a Republican," he said. "He's agreed to have me vote my convictions. Maybe he sees in my convictions a lot of similarities to what he believes in."
Using a phrase that made some blacks flinch, Herrity told his fellow supervisors that Francois had not been a "spear carrier" in his campaign and is a political independent.
Herrity first appointed Francois to the county Community Action Board early this year to replace Arthur J. Gregg, a retired Army lieutenant general who lobbied for Francois to be his replacement and who backed Francois for School Board as well. The two men are longtime friends.
Francois is eager for the interest in his appointment to die down. "I have to get out of the limelight," he said. "I need to become a member of the team. I'm a team player."